WHAT DOES THE ALBERT STREET FIRE TRAGEDY TELL US ABOUT HOUSING?

by Dec 8, 2023Amandla 90/91, Feature

ON AUGUST 31ST 2023, THE country woke up to the news that a fire had claimed the lives of over 60 people in the Usindiso building in the inner city of Johannesburg. As the death toll rose to 77, so did a national discourse about “hijacking” and blaming of foreign migrants. This was fuelled by politicians and the media.

If you looked hard enough, you might also have noticed articles in the mainstream media about the systemic nature of the housing crisis, which makes the occupation of abandoned buildings an option of last resort. No-one would make a “choice” to live in circumstances of insecurity and unsafety if other options existed.

Occupation is a symptom of the housing crisis. It is the lack of affordable and available formal options whether provided by the state or delivered by the private sector that makes this crisis systemic.

Solutions do not lie in condemning occupiers as “foreigners”, noting that both migrants from the region and South Africans lived in the building on Albert Street. Nor do they lie in masking the reason for occupation as being a problem of “hijackers”.

How did we go so wrong? What has happened to the ideals of the Freedom Charter and the Reconstruction and Development Programme?

One million houses

Before apartheid ended formally, the White Paper on Housing was being drafted. Published in 1995, it was the outcome of a negotiated process at the National Housing Forum. Private sector interests in property and construction, the recently unbanned ANC, Cosatu and civics were present.

Shortly thereafter, in 1997, the Housing Act was promulgated. Its aims were to address historical housing inequalities, promote housing access for the poor and institute, a national housing subsidy scheme. Promoting economic growth through private sector involvement in the subsidy projects was a central tenet.

It was at this time that the delivery target of one million low-cost houses within five years was born. Housing was seen as a catalyst for economic growth, emphasising the importance of state, private sector, and community participation. By 2001, government had housed five million people in 1.1 million houses, and between 4.5 and 5 million households had been provided with registered title, widely perceived as constituting secure tenure.

Even though housing delivery was impressive in the early years, the backlog continued to grow due to urbanisation, which had been accelerating since the mid-eighties.

Challenges soon emerged concerning both the quantity and quality of the subsidised houses, and peripheral location was key amongst the critiques. Land in a “good” location was seen to be too expensive to work within the subsidy limits. At that stage, market-related land prices went unchallenged; it was only later that spatial justice and spatial equity emerged more fully in the policy discourse, driven more by the planning sector than by human settlements.

Breaking New Ground

Before this, in 2004, the national Department of Human Settlements released the Breaking New Ground (BNG) housing strategy . This was more formally known as the Comprehensive Plan for Sustainable Human Settlements.

BNG brought with it a shift, at least on paper, from housing quantity to quality, location, informal settlements and the notion of the housing asset. In practice, the language of informal settlement “eradication”, used in BNG and borrowed from the Millenium Development Goals, took on a life of its own. Evictions and the prevention of “slums” became the order of the day. New “slum eradication” bills were put out for comment, and it was only through the agency of informal settlement residents and their use of the courts, that the bills never reached enactment. Abahlali baseMjondolo’s challenge to the Kwa Zulu Natal Slums Act was pivotal in this regard.

National Housing Code

The National Housing Code was published in 2004, and revised in 2009, standardising housing development,

financing, and implementation, including a chapter on informal settlement upgrading (the Upgrading of Informal Settlements Programme UISP). Informal settlements continued to grow and the National Upgrading Support Program (NUSP) was established to provide technical and financial assistance to municipalities to upgrade informal settlements. The programme has since been absorbed into the department, with the establishment of the Informal Settlement directorate.

Many city-wide upgrading plans were produced in the NUSP era. The progressive tenets of the programme included relocation as a last resort and the centrality of participation. However, implementation has been slow and difficult

In this context, occupations sit alongside private sector accommodation provision and subsidised housing delivery as the mechanisms by which people access housing. If you are unemployed, income insecure and working class, your options are limited: private rental and ownership accommodation is out of reach, and subsidy projects are on the decline.

Rather than waiting patiently in a housing queue – and people are sceptical due to maladministration and corruption – self- provision has become an increasingly effective, but desperate, option. In Latin America this is called the “social production of habitat”, giving recognition to self-provision and assigning to the state an entry point of support rather than condemnation.

Informal settlements and occupations increasing

Within this period however, informal settlements were increasing, as was the occupation of inner-city buildings in Johannesburg. While the building occupations are absent from official data systems, we know that between 1994 and 2015, the number of informal settlements increased from 300 to 2,225. Although the 2022 census indicates that the number of households living in informal housing has decreased significantly since 1994, this data has a 31% undercount – 31% of people and 30% of households were not counted. This means the quality of the data could be poor and unreliable. Regarding the rest of the housing programme, the Department of Human Settlements announced in 2022 the provision since 1994 of 5 million housing opportunities (actual houses or plots with piped water and electricity), and the delivery of over 3.4 million housing units, comprising stand-alone houses and units in multi storey buildings.

Solutions do not lie in condemning occupiers as “foreigners”, noting that both migrants from the region and South Africans lived in the building on Albert Street. Nor do they lie in masking the reason for occupation as being a problem of “hijackers”.

The Johannesburg story

Johannesburg is the largest municipality in South Africa, with an estimated population of 6,198,000 people. 80.17% are Black Africans, who live in the worst conditions of poverty in the city. Most earn below R3,200 per month. In Johannesburg inner city, decent and affordable housing, at sufficient scale, does not currently exist in practice. While there is insufficient space in this article to discuss the city level policies, the Inner-City Housing Implementation Plan (ICHIP) was intended to tackle the housing challenges and create safe and clean communities with access to economic opportunities.

Our recent snapshot check on the availability of affordable housing options shows that low income options under the Social Housing Programme, such as the units provided by the Johannesburg Social Housing Company, require an income of above R3,500. They exclude people without identity documentation, payslips, or bank accounts, shutting out the majority of the urban poor.

Commission of enquiry

This is the context in which the Khampepe Commission of Inquiry begins its work. The Commission must clarify the cause of the fire, where responsibility lies and the identity of extractive interests (the “hijackers”, if they existed in the building). But organisations of civil society and the working class must ensure that the systemic nature of the housing crisis also comes to the commission’s attention. What the commission finds should influence responses to occupations in the inner city.

We know that between 1994 and 2015, the number of informal settlements increased from 300 to 2,225.

Occupiers have constitutional rights to housing and legal protections against arbitrary eviction. Seen from an historical perspective, these legal and constitutional provisions were a response to the legacy of colonialism and apartheid land deprivation and dispossession. In practice, the case law that has developed from litigating against illegal evictions has led to a better balance between the rights to housing and property. Housing rights litigation has also led to the development of new policies, such as the Emergency Housing Programme (EHP), which came out of the famous Grootboom case. However, much remains to be done, as the tragic Marshalltown fire, and reactions to it, show.

The state needs to use, and where necessary adapt, the policy mechanisms that it already has at its disposal– the EHP and the UISP. The origins and intentions of post-apartheid legislation, like the PIE Act, must be reinforced and the case law that has developed around evictions must be entrenched: procedural requirements like a court order, with consideration of the relevant circumstances, and alternative accommodation where people would become homeless.

Only then will we be getting closer to the vision in the Freedom Charter and the transformative potential of the Constitution. Only then can we imagine a Johannesburg where a fire that took the lives of 77 people, and ruined the lives of many others, never happens again.

Lauren Royston is Director of Research and Advocacy and Nolwazi Mahlangu is an intern at the Socio-Economic Rights Institute (SERI).

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